I’m a little late in this tribute, but a family death, one beloved and too young, like Etta, derailed me, even as we honored this special man today at Algiers United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood, the altar where my parents said “I do,” and the backdrop of a recent murder/car-jacking.
New Orleans suffers under this murder-weight, as people add security and shake their fists. It’s Mardi Gras, and so we make excuses, explaining that it’s not the tourists in danger, but rather the criminals, as they battle each other. Yet there was nothing criminal about the man who died in front of his young sons, at the bus stop, by the church, in the vicinity of Martin Behrman School, named after the longest serving mayor (1904-1920) in New Orleans history, a school my father speaks of fondly as his alma mater.
Without romanticizing the tragedies, I still look at these events and wonder at their contribution to our character.
Consider Etta James. Born in Los Angeles to a 14 year-old mother and an unknown father, she basically raised herself, moving with the wrong crowds, embracing drug addictions, and living, more often than once, in prison.
Yet she sang with the raw and gritty power of those experiences — of spurned love, betrayal, and longing.
In a family photograph from New Iberia, 1950, six-year old George Rodrigue stands dressed as a cowboy on Christmas morning, an only child surrounded by symbols of the time: a Radio Flyer red wagon; promotional Coca-Cola Santa Clauses (in multiples because his dad traded them on a brick-laying job); a dartboard featuring Little Black Sambo*, a reality of a bigotry so culturally ingrained that no one in young George’s world thought twice about it; and a photograph on the fireplace mantle of cousin Nootsie, a fighter pilot shot down during World War II.
I see the fireplace bricks George’s father laid ever-so-straight with his bare hands, and I wonder at the Christmas ornaments, heirlooms of school projects, world travels, and craft fairs in my own childhood (still hanging on our tree today). And yet by the time George and I married in 1997, the Rodrigue family long ago wrote off their ornaments as junk, flickering only within George’s mother’s aging and Depression-influenced memory. I asked her, a woman who had not decorated a tree in forty-seven years:
Where do I find your ornaments?
“I threw those out years ago,” she explained, her mild dementia drifting in and out, “when I turned the attic into a studio for Baby George. Daddy installed a window unit, our first air conditioner, and I listened to that whirring machine all night while George painted.”
…at which point she twirled her hands in a disco move, the same gesture she made each time she talked about the floodwaters of 1927 rolling into New Iberia.
One year ago I began blogging for Gambit as ‘Dolores Pepper,’ a pseudonym detailed here. Like many things in life, however, the blog took a different turn, occasionally written from Dolores’s perspective, but more often from mine, as I experience not only the city of New Orleans, but also the world outside.
Gambit has a category called “The New Orleanian Abroad” which describes most of my posts —- from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Lecompte, Louisiana. “Abroad,” to my amusement, is, according to Gambit, any place outside of my Marigny/French Quarter home base.
“But what did you think about the art?” asked a friend recently, regarding a post on Minimalism in Marfa, Texas. “I’m not a critic,” I told her. I hope to pique interests in the arts without ever crushing an artistic spirit or expression. “Besides,” I continued, “if I don’t like it, I don’t write about it.”
YOUR FAVORITES (According to comments, stats, and those of you who stopped me on the street)
1. “For New Orleans”: I remember the first time I laughed after the storm: My friend Geri described the $200,000 worth of rodent damage to her house as "squirrels gone wild."
2. “Swamp Women”: If you look at the guys, you'd never know we almost died.
3. “Rejecting the Metaphor: Discovering Modern Art in West Texas”: The author visits the remote small town of Marfa, Texas and finds big-time contemporary art (and a surprising New Orleans connection).
4. “Breakfast at Lea’s Pies”: "Not too many of these places left," said George Rodrigue. But none of us believed him.
5. “Iry LeJeune, Cajun Accordion Player”: The tragically short life of a blind accordion player changed Cajun music forever.
“Terrebonne Parish was the leader in green energy,” declared Dr. Chris Cenac with a smile, referring to the palmetto-thatched houses and shrimp camps of late 19th century southeast Louisiana.
Although joking, his comment resonated as I visited the Cenac collection of memorabilia, equipment and photographs currently on view at Nicholls State University Library. Indeed, this organized visual and written record of south Louisiana, a story rooted in one family, represents the history of many, and recalls a time when we built our houses from the land, formed our legacy around oysters and sugar cane, and appreciated the swamp more than the grocery store.
In fact, as I studied the collection, I thought of the new downtown Rouses Market and its variety of andouille, wall of mirlitons, and oysters-by-the-gallon, as I learned from Cenac’s history of oyster sheds and ‘dancing the shrimp.’ On my first visit to Rouses this past weekend, I was ‘Dahlin’d’ and ‘Cher’d’ throughout the store, all to the beat of Cajun music, the legacy of a people that love the swamps and nurture their culture based on everything natural offered by Louisiana.
Take the Thanksgiving holiday to search your attic for those odd mementos handed down through generations, Civil War-era finds or other possibly historic items because National Geographic’s new America’s Lost Treasures will be in New Orleans Nov. 29 to look at our treasures and hear our stories.
It’s not Antiques Roadshow, where appraisers tell you the ugly painting you’ve had in a closet since you received it as a wedding gift is really an early Picasso worth $10 million. Monetary value isn’t really the consideration (although you could make some money) — it’s the history surrounding the pieces.
A limited number of people will be invited to bring things they are unsure as to their value to the Cabildo museum in Jackson Square and have it examined by experts, who will tell them about its historical significance. To apply for a spot, fill out this form. National Geographic may offer up to $10,000 to display some pieces in a special yearlong exhibit of America’s National Treasures.
For more information about the TV series, its search for historic items or its schedule of stops around the country, visit www.natgeotv.com/losttreasures.
“The brave young men rode onto the beaches and into battle on Higgins Boats, built in New Orleans by Andrew Higgins, the man Eisenhower said, ‘won the war for us.'” —Stephen Ambrose
Yet these two American giants of World War II never met. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) eventually became President of the United States (1953-1961); however, it was a decade before, in his role as a 5-star general in the United States Army and finally Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, that solidified his status as a hero, leading the United States and its allies to victory in Europe during World War II.
Meanwhile, Andrew Higgins (1886-1952) lived and worked in New Orleans, where he built many types of boats and barges but, most famously, designed the Landing Craft Personnel, Large (LCPL), the boats that transported allied troops to the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
When the National World War II Museum approached George Rodrigue in 2008 about a Blue Dog painting for their new wing, he winced.
“The Blue Dog,” he noted, “has no connection to World War II.”
I attended a small college, Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. In the mid-1980s we had maybe two thousand students. Although we had a football team, I don’t recall any games. We had a Greek system, but I evaded that as well, opting instead for extra classes and the AIDS suicide hotline.
In short, I received an excellent education in both books and sensitivity but, arguably, missed the college experience.
In my family, I was the exception. My parents graduated in ’61 and ‘62 from Louisiana State University, and my sister attended Ol’ Miss, followed by graduate school at Florida State. Without question, they were the cool kids, fans of football games, dating and parties, while I brown-nosed my professors and stood waiting early-morning at the locked library door. In the end, we all graduated, meaning, I suppose, that I missed out…needlessly.
For sometime now, George Rodrigue seeks to repair this lapse. It began when he insisted that I attend the 2004 Sugar Bowl in the New Orleans Superdome despite my guilt-motivated speech that my ticket belongs instead with a real fan.
To my surprise, I cheered and cried, losing my voice, but not my enthusiasm, for hours after LSU’s win. If I close my eyes as I write this, I picture the energy of the strangers’ shoulders on either side of me as we walked the length of Poydras Street to the Mississippi River. I knew for the first time this sort of exhilaration and, after losing my mother later that same year, cheered for her going forward, for the Homecoming floats and decorated fraternity houses, for poodle skirts and jukeboxes, for young love and life-long friends and, more than anything, for tradition.
Charles Durand, a sugar cane farmer, planted Oak and Pine Alley, a magnificent stretch of trees in St. Martinville, Louisiana, two hundred years ago.
The setting became the backdrop for a famous story about Durand’s daughters, whose father, in honor of their wedding, filled the oaks with spiders and coated their large webs with golden dust.
George Rodrigue painted The Cajun Bride of Oak Alley based on this story. By her solitary stance, however, she also references Longfellow’s Evangeline, as though waiting for her lover, her Gabriel, beneath the St. Martinville oaks. Typical of Rodrigue’s Cajun figures, the bride is timeless, a ghost not shadowed beneath the tree as one would expect, but rather luminous.
He rendered her this way, glowing from within, not only because it is her wedding day, but also because she shines with an anomalous American sub-culture, the Cajuns. She faces the alley, her back to the Bayou Teche. It appears that she is cut out and pasted onto the oak tree, trapped within Louisiana, and forever captured by both a magical story and a romantic painter.
From the back porch of our Faubourg Marigny home, I see the west bank of the Mississippi River through the branches of our enormous tree, a live oak that Mr. Foche probably nurtured himself when he built this house in 1835.
God only knows what the tree has endured. Nicholas Foche, a free man of color from Jamaica, arrived long before the levees. That means that the Mississippi River rushed periodically through the ground floor, from the back door to the front. The water settled at times, I know it did. It delivered alligators, snakes, and lots and LOTS of rats, and it bred millions of mosquitoes, spreading fever, disease and death throughout this, a great American city.
As a series, I don’t think Tremé (based on a neighborhood only a few blocks from ours) is fabulous, but on the other hand, the fact that I find it difficult to watch may be a testament to its insight. I recall the pilot as a misrepresentation, even a joke, on behalf of the Tremé writers to suggest restaurants and groceries and water bills and newly painted houses and dumpsters and taxis (and Elvis Costello and a limousine!) and Zapp’s potato chips and safe neighborhoods, and people who feel like singing — all just three months after the storm.
And yet right this second, six years to the day after George Rodrigue and I (the oh-so-fortunate) sat in a hotel room in Houston and watched on television as our city drowned, I sit on our 175-year-old porch and watch the tops of the ships go by. I see tourists wave to the shore of the river that made Louisiana the key state in Napoleon’s sale of 828,000 square miles of this country, and I watch our oak tree, now held together by steel wires and sprouting strong, near floating, swaying, and shaking its branches to the beat of New Orleans. Three months after or six years after —- I guess it doesn’t much matter.
It was less than a week after Hurricane Katrina, but looking back I guess it could have been two weeks. If your memory of September 2005 is like mine, it all runs together, one long journey through ‘A Muddled World,’ when we existed standing on our heads, wondering if our world would exist upright and normal again.
By this time our family was in Lafayette, Louisiana, safe and cared for within a friend’s guest bedroom. Like everyone we scrambled to reach people, frustrated with the lack of communication and the ‘Closed’ sign posted on New Orleans.
Once every few days the cell phone actually rang (forget about calling out), and we updated the distant relative or former neighbor, asking that they phone a dozen others with messages.
One such call came from Steve Diamond, a friend in Carmel, California whose ninety-six year-old mother, Irene Diamond, stubbornly remained by herself in her Lakefront home during the hurricane.
“Help me get her out of there,” pleaded her son. “I don’t care what it costs.”
Adding to the anxiety was the lack of communication. He had not spoken with his mother since before the storm.
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